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Charter Schools and Sausage

by Jeanne Allen
Huffington Post
April 12, 2012

Many people know the old adage, often attributed to Churchill, that the two things one best not see being made are law and sausage. Indeed when it comes to education policy there is no better truism.

Twenty-one years ago when the states first began enacting charter school laws, the intention — and the hope — was that charter schools would begin to serve the millions of students who had long been stuck in failing schools and who, by all accounts today, are still woefully underserved by the traditional public school establishment. Charter schools — public schools free from most rules and regulations that hinder progress and success, open by choice and held accountable for academic results, now number almost 5,700 with nearly 2 million children in attendance. That’s barely 2% of all public school students today, though in Washington the market share is 45% and in Kansas City it’s 35%, a direct correlation between need and demand — and the strength of the charter school laws in some states. And while some laws indeed have opened the way for the proliferation of charter schools, some states’ laws are no more than words on paper.

While most education groups understand that just passing a law is barely half the battle, sadly, the general public is largely unaware that it takes more than an up or down vote to change policy and make good things start happening for kids. And so when parents call us or revolt in their neighborhood over the lack of quality education available to them, many turn a blind eye. Policymakers in particular wonder what all the fuss is about, especially when their state has a charter law. Yes, it’s uncanny but true that most lawmakers don’t know what really happens in practice after they’ve helped enact a law! And getting their attention to actually focus on what their handiwork hath wrought is a challenge.

So while the nation’s schools are busy grading their students, we’re busy grading the states on how well their laws actually work in practice to improve education.

Our measurements are based on consistent, numerical analyses that hold every state to the same standard: Will the actual written law yield high numbers of high quality charter schools, with freedom and flexibility in operations, equity in funding, and accountability in outcomes? Does the sausage making include the best ingredients available, or pure garbage?

We thoroughly review each state’s law, examining what the words actually mean, in practice. For example, the word “commensurate” with regard to funding sounds great, doesn’t it? But in practice, it is often interpreted to mean different things depending on who’s in charge or how regulations are written. A funding formula that seems as clear as day can actually be a jumble of contradictory statements, understood — often deliberately — only by the regulators (and often to a charter school’s detriment). Still more often, practices are created and attributed to law that do not have even the slightest relationship to the policies enacted. Someone, somewhere puts in place a practice that gets followed and treated like law over time. It happens every day with charter school laws. Policies are set by someone — as fallible as we — perceived or interpreted to be right, and then they have the force of law.

This is a point that should not be lost on our nation’s educators, who are often required to do things that school boards and superintendents have interpreted as being required in law, when in actuality the practices they demand are simply a reaction, and their own interpretation of how to respond. That’s the pandemic of “teaching to the test”; the idea that a school would be judged or rewarded on the basis of one set of test scores does not in fact happen anywhere, but it’s become conventional wisdom and thus common practice to require them to “teach to a test” as opposed to do the “real” teaching they think will get a more substantial learning result. Teachers complain they don’t have the flexibility, confidence or resources to do their job well. The reality is that great teaching results in great results on any test, but like making law and sausage, getting there is messy.

Lawmakers often fall into the same trap in their own craft, and resort to creating policies that may sound responsive to the needs and demands of the public but in reality have little impact on the people they are intended to serve. Many states permit charters to open, but their laws are so restrictive and inoperable that they may as well not have laws at all. And because they simply approached charter lawmaking as if they were “teaching to the test” these states yield grades of low C’s, Ds and Fs.

On the other hand, those states that seek substance over form, and whose laws truly foster the creation of high numbers of high quality charters get, to no one’s surprise, the better grades; the A’s and B’s. Instead of going through the motions, they challenge conventional wisdom, common practices and succeed in doing what they set out to do when they started.

Educating the public to understand the mysteries of law making is the first step in ensuring a truly exceptional education for all children for generations to come. Education reform requires a lot of moving parts to make good schools grow for all children. Be it increased and better standards, teacher quality initiatives, new forms of accountability or charter school laws, we must be resolute in our demand for laws that actually do what they intend and ensure that long after the people now in charge are gone, the intended results are still happening.